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Clarity and Energy in Spring Dance Extravaganza

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A 20th-century landmark ballet that has not been performed in New York City for more than two decades will be resurrected for Juilliard Dances Repertory performances, which take place March 23-27. Fiercely innovative for its time, Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces was as stark, unsentimental and powerful as Igor Stravinsky’s score. The ballet’s 1923 premiere by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes confirmed that Nijinska was as important and groundbreaking a choreographer as her brother Vaslav Nijinsky, the legendary dancer whose choreographic output ended up being limited to merely three works before mental illness took over.

Dance Division Artistic Director Lawrence Rhodes said that Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces has “never failed to move me very deeply.” Second-, third-, and fourth-year dancers will perform the work, set to a score by Stravinsky, as part of Juilliard Dances Repertory; they are seen here rehearsing the ballet.

(Photo by Nan Melville)

Dancers rehearsing Mark Morris’s Grand Duo, set to Lou Harrison’s Grand Duo for Violin and Piano.

(Photo by Nan Melville)

Dancers rehearsing for the spring repertory program, which includes Eliot Feld’s Skara Brae, set to traditional Breton, Irish, and Scottish music.

(Photo by Nan Melville)

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Les Noces, which depicts a Russian peasant wedding in a severe, impersonal style through patterns that achieve architectural grandeur, will open a program that features two other dances in which communal energy and a distinctively contemporary sense of ritual are paramount. Eliot Feld’s Skara Brae, a 1986 work set to traditional Breton, Irish, and Scottish music, evokes an isolated Celtic community through dancing that is muscular, determined, and deftly patterned. Mark Morris’s imposing 1993 Grand Duo, one of his most enduring works, draws inspiration from Lou Harrison’s unique sonorities. Its four strikingly varied sections range from hauntingly mystical to ferociously primal. 

Dance Division Artistic Director Lawrence Rhodes had long been interested in having his students experience Nijinska’s seminal ballet. Like many of his generation, Rhodes had been amazed when he saw the Royal Ballet’s 1966 revival ofLes Noces, staged by the choreographer, after it had not been seen for decades. “I thought it was an amazing dance,” he said of the Royal’s production in an interview with The Journal during the second week of rehearsals for the upcoming program. “Considering its age, it was just a knockout.” 

When Rhodes became artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1989, Les Noces was in the troupe’s repertory. As a result, he said, “I got into it in a much deeper way, and kept appreciating it all the time. It never failed to move me very deeply. I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time at Juilliard [he has been here since 2002], and it seemed like this was the right moment. I realized it hadn’t been seen in New York for a long time, and our dancers wouldn’t know anything about it—that gets me excited, to expose them and a new audience to the ballet.”

Rhodes felt that the Juilliard students were ready for Les Noces, with its pulsating ensemble sections set to Stravinsky’s complex rhythms, because “they have learned a huge amount about cooperating, being in a community, through New Dances,” he said, referring to the annual December performance in which each class performs an original work that has been choreographed for it, “and through some of their repertoire, too.” Since the dancers have now learned to function as a community, he added, “I thought now was the right moment to bring this huge community piece” to Juilliard.

For the daunting task of staging Nijinska’s ballet, which is in four tableaus, Rhodes had no doubt where to turn. Howard Sayette has been the go-to caretaker of the work for more than 25 years. As the ballet master of the Oakland Ballet for many years, Sayette worked with Irina Nijinska, the choreographer’s daughter, when she staged her mother’s work for that company in 1981—making it the first American troupe to perform it. “Irina was amazing—she had an incredible memory,” Sayette said in a recent interview. “She had danced the ballet when she was young, and had assisted her mother on staging it, for the Royal and others, once her own children were grown. In 1981, she could not get up and do the steps; she was too old. But she always knew what it should be, and when it wasn’t correct.”

Sayette assisted Irina Nijinska in several subsequent Les Noces stagings, and since her death in 1991, he has carried the torch for the ballet (as well as Les Biches, which Bronislava Nijinska choreographed in 1924) far and wide. He has staged it in Russia—for both the Kirov and Maly Ballets—and in Tokyo. He now has a dozen Noces stagings to his credit, and knows full well the challenge of teaching the work—for a cast of 36—to dancers unfamiliar with its unique style. “It’s a ballet that you cannot verbalize; you have to get up and show every single step. It’s very difficult music. The steps themselves aren’t difficult. It’s a ballet, though, that has to be really together—like [famed ballet] La Bayadere’s ‘Shades’ scene has to be together. Sometimes the dance phrases don’t fit the measures, so you have to count it in dance phrases, as opposed to measures.”

At a second-week rehearsal of the complex, extended Fourth Tableau, “The Wedding Feast,” the Juilliard dancers were attacking the pulsating yet precise ensemble choreography with vigor as they ran through extended passages. The 15 men erupted into jumps that had a visceral power, and the 15 women in toe shoes alternated between sculptural groupings and pounding steps on pointe. Sayette coordinated the contrapuntal lines of dancers and guided them into a thrilling moment when the ensemble forms two triangular wedges at either side of the stage. He consulted a thick notebook of details he has accumulated through the decades of working on Les Noces—the musical score annotated with what he calls “my gibberish—words and symbols” drawn from information on various versions of the ballet.

In another studio, 14 dancers were learning the almost mystical, incantatory first section of Grand Duo, discovering for themselves how to interpret portions where the individual timing had been left up to them. “It’s like a wave, and you can change it all the time. It has room,” Joe Bowie, who is staging the work for Juilliard, explained before a rehearsal. Bowie, who performed with memorable verve in Morris’s company for 21 years, was in Grand Duo’s original cast. 

Lou Harrison’s Grand Duo for Violin and Piano (to be performed by Juilliard students, violinist Francisco Garcia-Fullana and pianist Sean Chen) is spare and haunting in this section, but veers into demonic intensity in the Stampede movement, which the dancers rehearsed under Bowie’s watchful but enthusiastic guidance. He asked them for “clarity and just the right amount of energy,” adding, “You’ll start to figure that out that you don’t have to go crazy.” As the music reaches a clanging peak, a “battle” section found clusters of dancers at opposite sides, alternately flinging and lunging toward the center. Bowie, the momentum of the movement he knows so well coursing through his body, called out counts as he coordinated the traffic patterns.

“They’re very gifted dancers, and very hungry for it—but they want to be right. And I tell them that being right is kind of boring,” he said before rehearsal. “Being on the rhythm—being yourself—is way more interesting than being ‘right.’ Mark has always had a wide range of bodies and types. He enjoys dancers who can understand his musicality and rhythm, and bring a certain quality to it that he needs and likes. But we’re all going to look different doing something.”

Juilliard dancers last worked with Eliot Feld in 2005 on Sir Isaac’s Apples—an imaginative, athletic work for all the division’s students that, as the name implied, played with ideas of gravity. Rhodes (a one-time leading dancer with the Feld Ballet) wanted to use a Feld dance for this year’s program, and Skara Brae seemed like an ideal choice. A work for 19 dancers set to traditional Breton, Irish and Scottish melodies, it shares with the program’s other works a focus on powerfully resonant groupings and the emotional pull of massed ensembles, as well very specific, atypical hand positions. During a rehearsal break, Feld recalled that at some point during the creation of the piece, “I came across aNational Geographic that had pictures of a Neolithic village in the Orkney Islands (very far north in the British Isles), a place called Skara Brae. The pictures were so beautifully desolate and haunting. You felt the inhospitality of nature. The village was discovered with all of the artifacts and tools intact—but no remains of people. So it was a mystery. The story is wonderful and mysterious and inconclusive.”

His company last performed Skara Brae 10 years ago. For Juilliard, Feld is focusing on the principal roles while his longtime ballet mistress, Patrice Hemsworth, is in charge of the group sections. A former company member, she “has all the talents I lack,” he says good-naturedly. “I do everything by the seat of my pants. When I choreograph, I’ll just move on when it seems right to me. She actually looks and sees why it’s right. She’s got an incredible memory; years later, you’ll come back and she’ll remember something I had forgotten.” 

So while Feld, in one studio, urged on two women learning a nimble, fast-paced solo—“let’s get the rhythm in our feet, and then we’ll take it to another level”—Hemsworth was next door working with 10 men on a weighted, melancholy section. “I want it ugly,” she said at one point. “Surprise me,” she said, of a moment when they drop abruptly to the ground. “It’s like someone pulled the rug out from under you.” The process of transferring a 25-year-old dance onto a new generation, born after its creation, is an intricate one. “The movement has to do the explaining,” Feld said with a laugh. “Words are a last resort—we use them, but the more you can get from the music and movement, the better off you are.”

Discussing the unique program he has assembled, Rhodes remarked, “There’s a lot of force in the community in all three dances, and a lot of ritualistic or tribalistic intentions. They all require a very strong focus and commitment to bring them off. In many ways, though students are in different pieces, they’re having similar experiences. The pieces are alike but very different—in terms of musical values, in terms of how the community functions together. There will be a strong impact, three times.”

 

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